The Periodic Table

In 1975, Primo Levi published a book called The Periodic Table, part memoir and part short-story collection. The main conceit of the book is that each of the 21 chapters loosely relates to one of the chemical elements. The chemistry theme was suited for Levi, who was a professional chemist--aside from being a writer.

Levi, who was an Italian Jew, lived through the concentration camps of Auschwitz--and though this is not a book about the holocaust, that tragedy has clearly left an impact on both the book and Levi's psyche. It is a book about casual interactions between people, about their dreams and their what-ifs.

Though not every chapter here lives up to the book's central metaphor, the collection as a whole stands beyond than the sum of its parts. Levi was a fantastic writer and this shows even through translation. He abides by all the rhythms and techniques of a master story-teller--he even pokes fun at the art of story-telling. But because Levi was as much a scientist as a writer, we got a book written through a empirical lens, which is something I rarely see in the world of literature.

Levi also wrote a memoir about his experience in the holocaust called If This Is a Man. I haven't yet read it, but if it is written with half the skill of Levi's work here it's probably worth checking out.